Pencil to Print: A Look Inside Comic Art

by Aileen Gallagher

The Pencil to Print exhibition at the Richmond Center on Western Michigan’s campus sheds light on the inner workings of comic book making. Showing until June 29th, this exhibition aims to enlighten not only ten year-olds and comic book enthusiasts but people of all levels of interest on the work that goes into books that either end up in the trash or tucked away for save keeping, but also highlights an art form that has received little recognition. Using twenty-two pages of issue #93 of The Amazing Spiderman (February 1971), Pencil to Print exposes the craftsmanship that is required in Comic Art.

John Romita Sr., Pages 1-3 of The Amazing Spiderman, Issue #93, February 1971, Ink on paper. Installation view, south wall.

Found in Western’s Rose Netzorg & James Wilfrid Kerr gallery, Pencil to Print is housed in the small, rectangular gallery and is set up in a way that shows a clear progression around the room. Beginning with “Hey Kids! Comics!” the exhibition starts the viewer off with a brief history of comic art and then clues the viewer in to what they are about to see. The show then displays each of the twenty-two pages of The Amazing Spiderman separately, with the penciled, inked, and colored copies along with the names of the artist, writer, editor, penciler, inker, letterer, and colorist. Occasionally, the viewer will find advertisements from that time or little insights into the comic art world between the pages of the series. For example, one break in the pages is an ad for the light blue pencil used in comic making. This blue pencil, or non-repro blue, is used during the process of drawing the illustrations because the blue marks are invisible to the stat cameras used when making films of the images. This saves the artist time if a mistake was made, and as emphasized in the exhibition, time is incredibly valuable in the comic book world. This need to save time and to speed up production increased as the demand for comic books increased.

John Romita Sr., Cover page of The Amazing Spiderman, Issue #93, February 1971, Ink on paper.

Demand for comic books was high during the 60s and 70s, also known as “The Silver Age of Comics.” In response to this large demand, employers pushed artists and writers to come up with new and exciting material at a fast rate. This fast-paced flow from demand to supply did not always aid in the creative process for many artists and writers. But speed and efficiency are requirements in the comic book world. This is evident in the books themselves. Comic books thrive on well-organized images and clear, concise text in order to create a flowing and coherent story line. The result, however, is often viewed as being simplistic.

The Pencil to Print exhibition mentions the view of comic art as being a part of a “second-class pop culture.” While thinking about the meaning behind this statement, I came across the term “lowbrow art.” Also known as “pop surrealism,” this art movement that began in Southern California in the late 70s consisted of artists without formal training whose work features cartoon-like characters, a sense of humor, and an escape from reality. Many artists who take part in this underground art movement began as tattoo artists, comic book artists, and illustrators. [1] And these beginnings show when viewing such artwork. A great example would be the lowbrow art magazine Juxtapoz, where one can find a great deal of video, illustration, street art, tattoo, and graffiti art. [2] While there are some stylistic and inspirational similarities between comic art and lowbrow art, comic art differs in that its aim is to create a story whereas lowbrow art aims to convey a comment to the viewer. One similarity between the two is that both are rarely abstract. Choosing instead to be representational, both have a narrative quality. Perhaps this result is due to the many lowbrow artists beginning as illustrators before joining the lowbrow art movement. Both are considered to be simplistic in technique as well as in inspiration. Lowbrow art aims itself to the audience outside of the elitist, art museum crowd, gaining inspiration from the everyday. Comic book art also gains inspiration from the everyday but also aims itself to the imagination of kids. It is the inspiration behind both art movements as well as the content chosen that creates this sense of simplicity.

Pencil to Print highlights the hard work and the craftsmanship that are required in making successful comic books. Part of this work that makes a comic book a success is making a coherent and easy to follow series of images to convey the story line. The images must be representational and are produced in an almost assembly line way in order to keep up with the high demand. Despite these essential aspects of comic books, the work is viewed as being simplistic rather than being seen as what it needs to be in order to be successful – which raises the question of why work that appears to be simplistic should be considered second-rate. An illustrator’s aim is to create a clear and comprehensible image, not to challenge the viewer with an artistic masterpiece that requires a certain level of intelligence to appreciate the full meaning. Perhaps this appearance of simplicity is a necessary component to the desired effect of comic book art.


[1] Matt Dukes Jordan, Weirdo Deluxe: The Wild World of Pop Surrealism & Lowbrow Art (California: Chronicle Books LLC, 2005).

[2] Juxtapoz Magazine, (accessed May 4, 2012).


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